Value Added: The "Move Management" Industry
By Thomas Heath
My 92-year-old mother motors around her two-bedroom, one-floor ranch home in Syracuse, N.Y., with the help of a walker and comforted by a lifetime of mementos, photographs (not enough of yours truly), her old furniture and the daily presence of my brother and sister, both of whom live close by. You couldn't pry mom from her home with a crowbar.
But many senior citizens aren't lucky enough to have family in the neighborhood and an easily navigable home. So in steps Transitional Assistance and Design, a Gaithersburg firm that helps seniors move from a beloved home to somewhere more suited to their circumstances.
"When you say moving and downsizing to anybody, their stomach probably goes south," said co-owner Joel Danick. "What we do for our elderly clients is to make something in a smaller version while maintaining the features of the original. We are the wedding planners of the moving industry."
A business school professor told me once that if you had enough money and a need, you can always pay somebody to fulfill it. That's what I thought of when I talked to Joel and Susie Danick, who started the company in 2000.
This is a cottage industry now coming to the forefront, said the Danicks. There are about 500 "move management" consultants around the country, ready to tap into the 78 million Baby Boomers headed for retirement, not to mention the dwindling members of my mom's generation.
The Danicks started their company when Susie, who was 38 at the time and a part-time nurse, helped move her grandmother from Chevy Chase to Brighton Gardens, a senior citizen living complex in Friendship Heights, right over the line from the District. The grandmother, who was in her 80s, was reluctantly leaving her spacious condominium for a small studio. She feared she was heading toward a nursing-home.
Susie painted the apartment in similar colors to the Chevy Chase place, and duplicated the furniture arrangements in the living room and bedroom areas so they were similar to what she had in the condominium.
"When she went there it felt like home," said Joel, 50.
The Brighton Gardens sales and marketing agent asked if the complex could show the apartment to other potential tenants, as a model of how cozy the new home could be. Word got around and others started asking Susie if she would decorate their apartments. She had 35 clients her first year.
The Danicks now help about 300 elderly citizens a year to downsize without losing a home that evokes familiarity and memories. Transitional Assistance and Design grosses around $500,000, employs 14 full- and part-timer workers, and provides the Danicks with a handsome income. Joel even quit his executive position at Balducci's grocery stores four years ago to help. Believe it or not, he said his grocery skills are transferable to moving consultants. More on that later.
In the early days, Susie enlisted her girlfriends for help. They would send their kids off to school, work for five hours and head home at 2 p.m. to greet their kids when they returned.
"I didn't look upon it as a business," Susie said.
She calculated her prices by calling interior designers she knew. They suggested about $100 an hour. So she set her fee at $35 an hour. It has grown to $75 nearly 10 years later, which includes the redesign of the apartment. Packing and unpacking runs $45 an hour. The blended rate ends up around $50 an hour. The moving in between, putting the stuff in a truck and driving to the new home, is outsourced to Town & Country Movers.
"One of our core business decisions was to stay focused on management and consulting," Joel said. Another benefit: you don't have to lay out the money for a vehicle fleet.
Like most businesses, the biggest cost is personnel (nearly half). Insurance is the next biggest. Then it drops swiftly. The Danicks have a public relations person on retainer and they spend about 5 percent of revenues on materials, from wall hooks to boxes to bags. They run the business out of their Gathersburg home, so there is no office leasing involved. Full-timers, who include a handyman, earn low five figures and the "move specialists" who do the packing, unpacking and aesthetic work around the apartment earn from $15 to $30 an hour, depending on their responsibilities.
Joel said the company has an IRA and matches up to 3 percent of salary; there is no health care benefit.
I guessed their net at around $150,000, and the Danicks did not disagree.
How do you get new clients?
Mostly through word of mouth. They have built strong relationships with senior communities in the Washington region, including Classic Residence by Hyatt and at Riderwood. Some senior communities offer new residents a set number of hours of access to Transitional Assistance at no charge to the resident. The company also gets referrals from Town & Country Movers. For advertising, the Danicks' 2008 Toyota Scion XB is decaled with company advertisements (Business tip: magnetized advertising placards can be stolen off the car).
Each move is a mission. They invade a client's home, shooting digital photos of the entire place, creating a map of the floor plan and recreating it on a small scale at the Danicks' home office in Gaithersburg, moving little scaled cutouts. Every detail is considered, from towels to window treatments, from custom paintings to china hutches. When one elderly client had accumulated 100 masks from a lifetime of travel around the world, Susie asked the client to pick five favorites and designed a wall display to bring them along.
Any new purchase above $75, from a frame to furniture, must be approved by the client and is reimbursed.
"Every plan is customized," said Joel. "Some just need unpacking. Some need decorating help and full service in between." The minimum is about $600 for a two-person crew for one day. One job involving moving out of an $11 million home took a crew of 13 all day and cost thousands.
There are headaches. One client got physically ill at the last minute. Timing the use of elevators, lobbies and parking can be tortuous and time-consuming. And the job is physical. Imagine packing and unpacking your house five days a week.
There is a network nationwide of senior transitional assistance businesses. So if my mom in Syracuse wanted to move to D.C., the Danicks and a similar company in Syracuse would work it from each end, with one packing and one unpacking. The one who gets the initial contact does the coordinating.
The staff includes retired teachers, nurses, production managers and people who work in estate sales. Most are between 40 and 60. There is a lot of handholding, empathy and gentle persuasion that goes with the job.
"It's purposeful work," said Joel, who carefully screens and does background checks on all employees. He brings the same passion to the consulting business as he did in serving his customers in the grocery business, first at Whole Foods and then at Balducci's.
"They are both customer service businesses," Joel said.
There are regular employee performance reviews. Trust, reliability, and leadership skills earn employees higher pay. So does punctuality. Learning how to disconnect a chandelier or install shelving will earn you more. Supervising a crew will too.
Though the market is still untapped, the Danicks have no little interest in expanding nationally but plan to grow the business locally. They started in the first year doing 35 moves and now do around 300.
"To franchise it at the level we do it would be very difficult and diminish the quality of service," said Joel. "You can't just go to page one of the manual and start."
February 1, 2009; 8:00 PM ET
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